4th Sunday of Lent (Year C)( “LAETARE SUNDAY” )
First Reading: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12 Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 Gospel Reading: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
"HAPPY ARE THOSE WHOSE TRANSGRESSION IS FORGIVEN, WHOSE SIN IS COVERED!"
Today is the 4th Sunday of Lent, and as the Liturgical tradition holds - it is rather unique, as evidenced by the rose colored vestment and the flowers adorning the Altar. Like the 3rd Sunday of Advent ('Gaudete Sunday'), the 4th Sunday of Lent is a break in an otherwise penitential season and it marks the halfway in our Lenten preparation for Easter. The 4th Sunday of Lent customarily is called "Laetare Sunday," and it takes its name from the opening words of today's Mass, the Introit's 'Laetare, Jerusalem.' The Latin word 'Laetare' means 'rejoice.' So, today the Church rejoices in joyful anticipation of the Easter mystery. We look ahead with joyful hope to what awaits—the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is almost as if we have reached the crest of the hill and now can see our destination in view.
Although Lent is a season of penance, we have much about which to rejoice at this momentary mid-juncture. Very appropriately, each of the three Scripture Readings characterizes one of the many facets of Easter joy. They all anticipate the joy of Easter and the happiness that reconciliation brings.
The First Reading from the book of Joshua describes the joy and gladness of the Israelite people as they settle in the new land, promised to them. Formerly a wandering people, on the move from oasis to oasis, making their way through the wilderness and depending on manna for food, they are henceforth a settled people. This process of settling is signified by the ceasing of the manna. As an established population, they now become growers of their own food in their own land and joyfully celebrate for the first time the feast of their freedom in their own land.
With the arrival in the promised land, the Israelite people are now children of God, their Father, at home in their own land. God has removed the 'reproach of Egypt' and a new way of life is initiated to them. However, a new stage in Israel’s development and their increased independence in Canaan isn't a lessening of their need for God, but an opportunity for more active cooperation with His blessings.
In the Second Reading of today, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about the joy of reconciliation. He joyfully proclaims that 'in Christ' God has reconciled mankind to Himself without counting their trespasses. Using himself as an example, St. Paul describes life before Christ and life in Christ. By 'in Christ,' he meant the radical and continuing process of transformation of the life of faith; but even more than a transformation, he understood his life 'in Christ' as a new creation.
Besides his personal witness as an apostle for Christ, Paul regarded the ministry of reconciliation as one of his foremost privileges. As a preacher of the gospel and a teacher of Christian values, and by virtue of his personal conversion, Paul had become an 'ambassador' of God’s reconciliation. His life and his mission were sacramental; i.e. a living sign of what God had done for all peoples in Christ; and he believed that all believers were honored to be charged with the same mission - that of being living sacraments of God’s reconciliation.
The Gospel Reading of today from St. Luke relates one of the most beautiful and well-known parables of Jesus, “The Parable of the Lost Son.” This parable is unique to St. Luke. It is the third of the parables taken from the evangelist Luke’s trilogy on God’s mercy. The other two being - 'The Parable of the Lost Sheep' and 'The Parable of the Lost Coin.' The three parables are situated in a context of controversy against the Pharisees and Scribes who resent Jesus' practice of table fellowship and consorting with sinners. In these parables, Luke champions the theme that God’s mercy breaks through all human restrictions of how God should act towards sinners. God’s mercy, indeed, is as foolish as a shepherd who abandons ninety-nine sheep to save one, as a woman who turns her house upside down to recover a paltry sum, and as a Jewish father who joyfully welcomes home his wastrel son who has become a Gentile. Inevitably, all the three parables have a joyous and happy ending. There is great rejoicing over the lost ones having been found.
Now, 'The Parable of the Lost Son' is a very moving and eloquent story of a father and his two sons. Through this parable, Jesus not only illustrates God’s special and unconditional love for the wretched who repent, but also the correct attitude of the community toward them. The younger son asks for his share of his inheritance and leaves his family and home in search for happiness and fulfillment in life. The only problem was that he thought he could find them in what the parable calls a life of debauchery. He soon squandered his money, his morals and even his Jewish religious heritage. He eventually ended up living with the pigs in the pig sty, so desperate was his situation. As he reached this rock bottom state, he eventually 'came to his senses,' admitting his guilt and feeling terribly sorry for his mistakes. He finally decided to return home to his father. He no longer had any legal claim upon his father; those rights had ceased when he demanded his inheritance. Therefore, the son's resolve to return home indicated that he was totally reliant on his father’s mercy and goodness.
How moving is the scene that follows! Apparently, the father had been waiting for his wayward son, for amazingly, while he was 'still far off,' the father ran to meet him. Without waiting for the son’s confession of wrongdoing, the father embraced him in warm welcome. Even when the son tried to admit his guilt, the father interrupted his recitation to order that a party be prepared. What is more, he restores his son’s dignity by giving him the finest robe, placing a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. The robe and ring and shoes were a sign that the son would not be received into the house as a servant but in his former status as son. Slaughtering of a fatted calf was an indication of an extravagant feast and rejoicing, which was done only on great occasions.
The joy of the father in the return of his son is so unmitigated and intense that it must be expressed in a celebration. On one hand, it reaches out beyond the story setting to those who heard Jesus and read Luke, teaching a lesson of God's magnanimous and unconditional love expressed in His merciful forgiveness; and on the other hand, there is a clear Easter motif in the compassionate Father’s call for celebrating and rejoicing. “Let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.” Indeed, the conversion of a repentant sinner is a paschal experience. It is an intimate participation in Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
Perhaps the saddest part of the story, even more pitiable than the prodigal son, is the resentful and arrogant older brother who refused to enter into the joy of the occasion. Because the bulk of the narrative is centered on the younger son, the fact that the story is actually a double-edged parable has sometimes been overlooked. In the father’s treatment of the younger son, the lesson of divine mercy offered reassurance to sinners. In the interchange between the older brother and the father, a stern warning was issued to the self-righteous whose resentment hardened them against the joy of God’s magnanimous goodness. Sounding very much like the Pharisee who despised the sinful publican and proudly recounted his good deeds before the Lord, the elder son cataloged his virtues before his father. But this was not the point. The father did not compare his sons to one another or measure one’s goodness against the other. Instead, he wholeheartedly gave his love to each according to their need. By calling the older son to rejoice in his brother’s return, the parable challenged those who thought themselves righteous and upright to look upon those less sure of themselves with compassion.
The Gospel parable of today is commonly known as 'The Parable of the Prodigal Son,' for obvious reason. The younger son is prodigal by senselessly spending all his inherited wealth. But it is a misnomer, for the popular name fails to indicate that the father has two lost sons, not one. The resentful elder son, however, did not know that he was lost. Though physically near, he was just as lost as the one who had set off for a distant country squandering his inheritance in a dissolute life.
There are others who feel it more appropriate to call this story, 'The Parable of the Prodigal Father.' For them the point made in the story is not how bad the boys are, but rather how good the father is. It is the father who is excessive and extravagant and immoderate, anything but frugal with his forgiveness and mercy. It is the father who squanders love and reconciliation on his two sons. The father is the true spendthrift here, sparing no cost of labor to celebrate the homecoming of the wayward younger son. Also, with similar prodigality, his offering of everything to the older son, who is reluctant to forgive his younger brother, makes the father all the more generous.
In the parable, actually, we are given a most beautiful description of our heavenly Father. The father is outside of the house waiting for the younger son to return; and when the son returns, he runs to him, clasps him in his arms, kisses him, brings him in and throws a party for him. There is no negotiation, condition or fine print - just pure acceptance and total forgiveness. Similarly, when we return to God, He does the same to us and throws a party for us.
Again, not only does the father come out of the house once, but he comes out a second time to try to persuade the elder son to come in. In the same way, our heavenly Father welcomes each of us to his party. The most beautiful words in the parable, perhaps, is what the father says to the elder son, “All I have is yours.” Our heavenly Father says the same thing to us too, “All I have is yours.” This is a most beautiful promise and invitation. We are, however, not told at the end of the parable whether or not the elder son went in to the party. After reading this parable, we also have a choice to make - Will we stay outside or will we go in to enjoy the Father’s party?
The Holy season of Lent is about our coming home to God in the sacrament of reconciliation, regardless of what sets us apart. The road to reconciliation is a hard road to take, for guilt is never easy to admit; but when the guilty one knows that a loving Father with open arms waits to welcome him/her home, the road to repentance becomes easier and shorter.
The story is told about how someone asked Abraham Lincoln how he was going to deal with the rebellious southerners when in the aftermath of defeat, they returned to the Union of the United States. Lincoln responded to the inquiry by saying, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
God, our Father, too treats us, the sinners, the same way - as if we had never been away. "HAPPY ARE THOSE WHOSE TRANSGRESSION IS FORGIVEN, WHOSE SIN IS COVERED!"
What are we waiting for? Let us hurry up and go home to the Father. For, even before we take the first step towards the Father, He is already there ready to welcome us. Even as we attempt to say our words of confession, He already forgives us. Even as we accept the punishment due to us, He is there to put the finest robe on our shoulders, rings on our fingers and sandals to our feet. He is so glad to have us back home, to celebrate our coming home He throws a party and invites everyone to participate in it and to rejoice with Him. And this is the Good News of today.